February 1, 2019 - Robinson will be signing books at Smith County Heritage Museum, Carthage TN from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., with a portion of the proceeds going to aid the museum.
September 29, 2018 - Robinson has completed his third Appalachian Trail thru-hike!
May 16, 2018 - Robinson's third Appalachian Trail thru-hike has begun. Find his Field Notes under The Travels tab.
April 20, 2018 - The Latter Half of Inglorious Years is now available from Amazon and bookstores!
March 2, 2018 - The Latter Half of Inglorious Years is finished and has gone to the editor! Look for publication soon!
January 2018 - The Appalachian, Notes from the Field, and Life in Continuum are now available from Ingram, std discounts, rtnble
April 2017 - Returned from Nevis with 15 chapters, new friends, low blood pressure, and a good tan. May I go back now?
November 2016 - Fled to Nevis in the Caribbean
October 31, 2016 - Are there any reading groups out there? Fiction? Science-Fiction? Travel? I will provide up to 10 copies of The Appalachian, Life in Continuum, or Notes from the Field to the first reading group of each genre to get in touch, in exchange for reviews on Amazon.
October 6, 2016 - A second edition of Notes from the Field, with improved maps and updated cover art, is now available.
June 24, 2016 - Field Notes have begun. See Travels page.
June 2016 - Robinson departs for France at the end of this month for a re-hike of the Alps and a reconnection with Hannibal.
May 19, 2016 - Notes from the Field is live on Amazon.com!
April 2016 - Work on Notes from the Field is complete. Look for it in bookstores or on Amazon soon.
Jan 2016 - Robinson is at work on his next book, Notes From the Field: A diary of Journeys Near and Far.
Dec 2015 - The Appalachian has been named to Kirkus Reviews' Best of 2015!
Copyright 2018 by Kirk Ward Robinson
Saturday, October 27, 2018 – Smith County, Tennessee
A month off the Appalachian Trail, these weeks have passed as nothing. It took as many weeks to hike from Pearisburg, VA to Springer Mountain, GA, but those 635 miles stretched perception into ages. I call it trail time, that peculiar dilation of days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into near eternity. In trail time you register every moment of living, practically every breath. I feel its loss as if it were the very life of me. I’ve almost gone back a few times, grabbed my pack and poles and headed for the door. I’m not sure I will be able to wait ten years until my next hike. It might come sooner or, outside of trail time, it might just seem that way.
Each of my hikes has been a different experience, but none as pronounced as this one, from the missing moose in Maine to the relentless rain. And there were more hikers on the trail than I have ever encountered before, less solitude than in years past. The dog fetish has extended to the trail now. I passed dozens and dozens of them, backpacked and bandanaed as if they were human beings, twice stirring up the bees that delivered multiple stings to me moments later. I saw a nobo with a cat—yes, really—and one guy hiked with a parrot on his shoulder.
But the biggest difference was probably that this was my third hike. Knowing what to expect did not dilute the experience for me, but it did evoke consternation in some of the others, as if by hiking more than once I were somehow robbing them of their legitimacy. Zaney Zaney, a splenetic nobo I had the misfortune of rubbing shoulders with all night in a wet, cold, crowded Eliza Brook shelter in New Hampshire, couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept that I was on my third hike.
“Why would you want to do this more than once?” he asked incredulously.
He was about my age, or at least with a similar amount of gray, and affected the imperious, superior air I have seen in many a northbounder. Our conversation actually began this way:
“You a sobo?” he asked, looking cold and humorless under the dripping eave.
“So...” He pondered that as he pushed his gear into the shelter, looked for nails or pegs to hang things on, scowled when he saw my shoes hanging up there. “Could you move those so I can hang some stuff?”
I was about to tell him tough luck, pal, but just then a half dozen sopping-wet nobos drug in, and what that meant was that the shelter would be full. In this kind of weather, thru-hikers accommodate everyone. There’s always room for one more hiker, but that means none of us can take up as much space as we would like.
“Yeah, toss ‘em over,” I said.
He grunted and complied and then hung his nasty socks where my shoes had been. Once he believed he had established his preeminence, he turned to me with that superior air and smugly said, “So, you’ve hiked a whole 400 miles then.” Statement, not a question.
This is a nobo’s way of showing off, since by then nobos have hiked over 1800 miles. I’d heard it before, directed at me and other sobos. I endured it on my first hike, shrugged it off on my second, but with Zaney Zaney I’d had enough.
“Actually that would be 4400 miles,” I said with no humility whatsoever. “So you’ve hiked, what, a whole 1800 miles then?”
A pair of section hikers at the other end of the shelter snickered at that, while Zaney Zaney reddened with indignation. I took to calling him ZZ, which rubbed him wrongly as well. It was then that his eyes fell onto the bill of my cap, where I had listed my three southbound hikes, and he fired back with the retort above. I tried to explain, but gave up in the face of his density. We shared no more words through that night and into the next morning. It was no loss.
Most hikers I met, northbound, southbound, flip-flop and section, were in awe that I was on a third hike. A few, though, demanded an explanation that I was never able to satisfactorily supply: that I loved the trail; that I wanted to hike every ten years as long as I was able; that this is where I got the ideas for some of my books—all true but ultimately unsatisfying for the incredulous. The trail was too strenuous, too dirty, too full of bugs and bears and other things that bit. Once was more than enough for them, they said while shaking their heads at me.
Toward the end of my hike I finally figured it out. Each of my hikes has been a journey. Taken as a whole toward the end of my days they might even represent one journey, but a journey nonetheless. For these dubious sorts (and they were of all ages and genders), the trail is not a journey but an activity, like a marathon or triathlon, something to check off a list.
Too bad for them, but maybe by my next hike they will have all moved on to another fad and there will be solitude on the trail once more.
These are my last notes for this journey. I have already explained why there are so few of them. My adventures during the 1792 miles between Glencliff, NH and now will have to wait for my book Further Notes from the Field, which will be along someday. My Tweets and Facebook posts will stay up for a year, so you can check there for some abbreviated information about my hike.
Now it's time to get back to writing and selling books. If you enjoyed following my hike during these months, please give my books a read and take the time to post
some Amazon reviews. This is, after all, how I pay for these journeys on the Appalachian Trail and elsewhere.
I have many people to thank, so I hope I don't forget anyone:
To all of my friends, domestic and international, who followed my journey from the beginning. I look forward to seeing each of you again, even y'all way down under. Also my family and those far-flung sisters.
To the trail angels: Ty Payseur, NC; Canyonman and Alice, VA; Mechanical Man and Crayon Lady, PA; Fresh Ground, VT; Vagrant Bear, MA; Flash Gordon, MA; Omelet Man, NH; the two bikers at Fontana Dam who thundered by at just the right time, and so many more who didn’t give their names.
To the great hostels: Rebekah at Lakeshore House and Poet at Shaw's, ME; Steve at Hiker Hut, ME; Doc at Angel's Rest, VA; Gadget & Connie at Greasy Creek Friendly, NC; Vagabond at Top of Georgia; Adam at Stanimal’s in VA, Maria McCabe at her home in CT; Eric at Rattle River, NH, Ben at Teahorse Hostel, Harpers Ferry, and Robbie at Lickskillet, VA.
To the hiker friends I have made, too many to list them all: Mr. Hiker (SOBO), Wind Rider (Flip Flop), IDHATN (Flip Flop), Business Casual (Section), and of course Freewind (SOBO).
And special thanks to Kim, who handled my mail drops, and drove me to the airport early, early one May morning.
Saturday, August 4, 2018 - Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania
This is the first computer I have found that works since New Hampshire many, many miles ago, and what seems like a lifetime ago in trail time. So much has happened, from nudist hikers to bears to days of rain to splendid views and larger than life people--too much to try to catch up on now.
I have decided to discontinue field notes for this hike. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and look for the full story in Further Notes from the Field, which I will publish some year soon.
Thanks for following up to this point...
...and I do still need an agent if you know one...
...and y'all buy some books, okay?
Solo, signing off.
Monday, June 25, 2018 - Glencliff, New Hampshire
Things have changed on the Appalachian Trail. The Ore Hill shelter is gone, burned down by a careless hiker, and the Garfield Ridge shelter, where Jake Brake and Willow have thier passionate night, has been torn down and replaced with a fancy new double-decker. I was sad to learn this when I went in to sign the register. The old cabin now lives only in the pages of my novel. And then there's this: in 2001, no one carried a cell phone; by 2008 everyone did; and now everyone carries a smart phone. I've seen hikers thumbing them as they hiked, picking up bars on the mountaintops, checking their apps, Facetiming as they go, tuning into sites that provide the latest trail info down to the hour.
There is less mystery, more formality. In 2001 this was still a counterculture experience, almost anarchist. Granted, there are still some who will smoke a few bowls in the shelters, but for the most part it's all business, big miles, goals to be met. The millennials are especially focused. I have met them as they swarmed into shelter just after sunset, throwing down so quickly in order to get into their bags and get to sleep that I never even learn their names. They are less interested in conversation outside of their cohort, their eyes are steely, looking ahead to the maximum miles they can put on through the next section. They are uninterested in trail tradition or lore, shrugging this off like a bad hook-up. I have wondered if thier hikes mean anything more to them than an exclamation mark on their Linkedin profiles.
Not all are this way, of course. Many are fine young people looking for the same rewards we all are, regardless of age. These young people have been a pleasure to meet, even though there has been some crowding. In my previous hikes, I might have counted five or fewer Nobos in the state of Maine. This time I lost count at sixty. Hikers in the smart phone age can mine a wealth of information that did not exist even a few years ago. Nowadays, everybody knows about the northbound "bubble," the enormous pack of spring hikers who begin their hikes on Springer Mountain, Georgia. The crowding is bad through the Smokies and as far north as Harpers Ferry, so in order to beat this crowding, hikers are leaving earlier and earlier, in January and February, hiking through the cold and snow in order to stay ahead. What they have really done, though, is extend the bubble by a thousand miles, impacting me as I hike south. I have reached hostels that were full, hikers sleeping on the floors, and shelters where we lay shoulder to shoulder so that one or two more could get in. I have never experienced this north of New Jersey. t has been a shock.
Beyond this, the White Mountains are behind me now. I have hiked 400 miles, lost about 15 pounds, and have never felt better. From here the trail smooths out, fewer rocks and roots, so I can make a full stride without having to worry about rolling an ankle. My miles will lengthen into the 20s for the next few hundred miles, then into the 30s. I expect to be in Vermont in two days.
Thursday, June 14, 2018 - Gorham, New Hampshire
The nice weather held out until today. I went over Bald Pate Mountain with its outstanding views, bottomed out in Grafton Notch then began my climb of Speck Mountain, over the other side and then down into Mahoosuc Notch, where hikers spend a mile working their way through a jungle gym of boulders, under, around, between, backpack off in places, throwing trekking poles ahead like spears. It took two hours this time, left me weary and I'm not sure why. The weather was great, even a bit warm. The embedded ice below some of the rocks exhaled refreshingly cool air, and yet I lacked the energy to twist and wind through there with the sense of abandon that the Notch can give. After the long climb out, I pulled in at Full Goose shelter, 4.4 miles short of Carlo Col shelter, which I had reached on both my previous hikes.
Full Goose is a large shelter, good water nearby, so not a bad place to stop, but doing so meant that I would have to pull 21.4 miles the next day in order to reach Gorham, New Hampshire. I didn't have to push that hard, of course, I can set whatever pace I want, but I have found myself accidentally paralleling my hike from 2008. Since Monson, I have been hiking the exact same miles each day, arriving at the same shelters and hostels on the same dates as last time--that is until I pulled up short at Full Goose. So yeah, to make Gorham on June 14 was suddenly important to me, to cross into New Hampshire on the same date, to be the first southbounder out of Maine again...I could add the 4.4 miles, I could do the 21.4--it would be worth it.
I'm not exactly sure when the rain started, but it wasn't until after I had crossed into New Hampshire. It probably started while I was climbing that slippery, boulder-strewn trail up Mt. Success. I'm sure I was being pummeled by the time I reached the summit, because I was racing for Gentian Pond shelter at that point, desperate to get under cover before everything became soaked again, like it was in the Bigelows.
I reached Gentian Pond shelter at 12:45 p.m., ducked in and then the sky loosed in a hard slanting rain that drove a chill wind into the shelter. I still had twelve miles to go before I could reach the comfort and sanctuary of Gorham, and this over a couple of mountains that would slow my progress even on a nice day. I watched the rain, pondered, got cold, then surrendered to the last of my dry clothes. By 1:45 p.m., the rain began to slack. I committed myself, stepped into the wet, and made for Gorham. This was it: if the weather didn't improve I would be wet to the core and with nothing else dry to wear. Twelve miles. I could do it. I would do it, I had no choice.
The rain eventually stopped, although I was as wet as I knew I would be. I started my descent of Mt. Hayes as the sun set, racing down those interminable last 3.5 miles to Gorham in what seemed to be a race with the night. The blazing is poor in this section so I shunted onto social trails a few times, cursed my way back onto the AT then carried on. The mosquitoes came out in swarms. I could see the lights of Gorham across the river and through the trees, but I still had a mile or more to go.
Damn, no blazes! And damn the mosquitoes. I came out onto Hogan Road, couldn't remember if I needed to go left or right, no blazes, I went the wrong way, figured it out, went the other way, caught North Road at last, turned right, dark, mosquitoes, wet, tired, there's Rattle River Lodge and Hostel, right on the trail, no need to hitch into Gorham. It wasn't in business last time, but 2008 doesn't matter anymore, only now. I went around back, went inside, and stood--stunned: the place was full of northbounders, 100% full.
I wilted in place. Night had taken over beyond the door. I had nothing left. Erik Barstow, the owner, felt pity. He gave me a fast and free shuttle to a motel in town, where I showered, ate, and sipped a celebratory single-malt. The hardships of the day seemed to belong to another era. What's behind is behind--now I've got the White Mountains to deal with.
Monday, June 11, 2018 - Andover, Maine
I have stayed at Pine Ellis Hostel in Maine twice before, so when I reached South Arm Road I held out my thumb for a hitch into town. It was still relatively early--I could have made even more miles--but I really wanted to reconnect with the place, to see if Ilene and David were still there and in good health. Both were still there, keeping the place going. I recognized Ilene right away, ten years older but still spry. I didn't recognize David at first, which led to an awkward moment, but then I could see through the decade to the man I had met in 2008 and it all came back to me.
I spent a pleasant evening, and then David shuttled me back early the next morning. I had planned an eighteen-mile hike over Bald Pate Mountain to the shelter on the other side, was moving out fast and well, feeling good in the great weather, when after ten miles I came to B-Hill Road. This is another road leading into Andover, but for me it was just a crossing. I had been to Pine Ellis, I didn't need to go back. It was early enough, and I looked forward to summiting Bald Pate in good weather--
And then this happened...
Perhaps the strangest, most coincidental thing occurred the moment I set my right foot on the pavement. My left foot was still on the duff of the trail, my right foot on the pavement, both trekking poles still embedded in leaves and dirt, my eyes searching across the road for the next white blaze, when a pickup truck screeched to a halt right then and a guy leaned out his window and hollered, "You heading to Pine Ellis?"
I was a bit bewildered. It took me a moment to process the suddenness of this, the sheer incongruety of it. I found myself nodding in a daze. "Yes," I said with certainty. 'Yes I am." "Well hop in, then," he said.
His name was Peter and his dog was named Jack. Peter had a summer cabin nearby, which is why he was on that isolated road. Jack sat placidly in my lap as we went the nine miles or so into Andover. Peter dropped me at an intersection near Pine Eliis, and so not even noon yet, I walked back in and said hi to Ilene and David.
"Why are you back?" they asked me in unison. I explained the bizarre circumstances to them, the pure serendipity of it. Ilene pondered this. "You're meant to do something," she said. "Maybe," I said, "or maybe this is part of someone else's story. Anyway, here I am."
I had another pleasant evening, met my first other southbounder, Wisecrack, then set out again next morning to continue my hike. I'm not a believer in preordained stuff, in destiny and such, but this was a weird thing. I'm glad I followed the signs just the same, although I have yet to connect them with a reason why. Who knows where time will roll? Sometimes you just have to go with the mystery, and things will fall where they will.
Friday, June 8, 2018 - Sandy River, Maine
I sat out the weather for two more days in Stratton, feeling antsy to get moving but the weather remained wet and much too cold. At last a reasonable forecast, a few days of partly sunny skies and warmer temperatures. It was time to go.
That morning was still gray and ominous, but I trusted that the sun would burn through at least by noon. I began my climb into the Crocker Range in good form after so many days of rest, the blackfies held back by the cool air. I made the peaks in the fog of low clouds, no views whatsoever, and in a wind that cut through my outer layers to chill my sweat-soaked shirt. In these conditions, stopping to rest chills you further, so I pressed on.
I was climbing Sugarloaf Mountain when the rain started, not pelting at first, just sprinkles, but this didn't last. By the time I reached the peak the rain was coming down hard, icy bullets that I'm sure would have left bruises on bare skin. I stopped in at Poplar Ridge shelter, near where Inchworm lost her life a few years ago, then pressed on to Spaulding shelter where I was met with my first shelter full of northbound hikers. It was crowded, close, and a bit smelly; and someone snored all night. As a consequence, I got little sleep.
These were intrepid early northbounders, all young, who had endured snow and even sub-zero temperatures in the Smokies and Grayson Highlands. By this point they were all business: eat, sleep, wake up and go, with little conversation in between. I never even learned their trail names. I was first out the next morning at 5:00 a.m., while they expected to reach and summit K in half the time it had taken me to get here--and I believe they will succeed.
I went over Saddleback Mountain in the same poor weather: biting cold, leaning into a wind that would surely blow me off the mountain. Coming down the other side, everything wet and chilled to my core, I reached the road to Rangeley and took the short .3-mile walk to the right to reach Hiker Hut, a new hostel since my last hike.
It was about 6:30 p.m., gloomy because of the low ceiling, the chill just a constant by this point, but my spirits lifted the moment I stepped into what felt like more of a tranquil enclave than a hiker hostel. There were flower beds and a gurgling stream, bird feeders and rustic hand-built cabins. The place was a refuge from physical and mental discomfort, I could sense that immediately.
The proprietor, Steve, was on a ladder securing some shingles on the main bunkhouse. "Hey, there," he said. "What can I do for you?" "Hot shower, hot food, and cold beer," I said wearily. "Okay, then," he said. "let's go."
In the next moment we were in his old red truck rattling into Rangeley, where I had a shower at the local gym and everything else at the local pub. By the time the sun had set, I was sated, comfortable, and thinking that the last two days hadn't really been that bad after all.
I zeroed the next day, my birthday, and was rewarded with perfect weather. I got to know Steve, and liked him. He is my age, with his own wealth of stories. Later, he participated in a solemn ritual I decided to perform at his place, giving it the weight and moment it warranted. The day after that, I hiked out, headed for Bemis Mountain and what lay between it and the New Hampshire state line.
Saturday, June 2, 2018 – Stratton, Maine
I have stayed at the Stratton Motel during both of my previous hikes, and was gratified to discover that the place was still open, even if it has changed hands at each of my visits. It was here in 2001 that the owners baked me a birthday cake; in 2008 when the new owner, Sue, presented me with the Kelty sleeping bag that I am still using; and now 2018 as I sit with Baron, the caretaker, and study a roiling gray sky while shivering through gusts of chilling wind.
I don’t consider it safe to hike up to higher elevations in this weather. Some hikers might shrug it off and go, but some hikers haven’t experienced hypothermia. I have too often, including yesterday.
My hike from Caratunk started with a 9:00 a.m. canoe ferry across the Kennebec River, which is too fast and deep to safely ford. A hiker drowned just recently while trying. I hopped out on the opposite bank, shouldered my backpack, and set out under a clear, warm sky. I threw down after 13 1/5 miles at West Carry Pond shelter, took a refreshing swim in the pond, then settled in for the night, alone with the chirps and screeches of evening.
Next morning I set out early, needing to pull big miles in order to scale Bigelow Mountain, over Avery Peak, through the col and over the Horn in order to reach the Horns Pond shelter. As with my previous hikes, this is not how it went.
The hike started out nice—not too buggy, not too hot—and I made good time. The sky did not begin to fill until I began my climb some eleven miles later. Within minutes, the sky was almost black, loosing rain in cold, fat drops that drenched me at once. Rain guzzled from the bottom of my backpack, icy rivulets that ran down the back of my legs into my shoes. Everything in my backpack is enclosed within ziplock bags. Nothing inside got wet, but just the weight of all of that water pulled at my shoulders, slowing me at a time when I needed to move fast.
The trail is steep here, with rock scrambles, exposed roots, and a well-trod path that was now flashing like an Arizona canyon after a thunderstorm. I had no choice but to push on through this since Horns Pond shelter on top was closer than the last shelter behind me. I don’t carry a tent, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: the trail was too steep and rocky to pitch a tent even if I’d had one.
This went on for what seemed like hours, my pace slowed to barely ½ mile per hour. The rain never let up, so when I finally cleared the treeline onto that bald granite top I was fully exposed to the brunt of the storm. I could feel the wind stripping away my body heat despite the layers I was wearing; I cringed at the cold tracks running down my skin. The blazes appeared in and out of the cloud fog, while I leaned against my trekking poles to keep from blowing over.
I descended at last into the shelter of the opposing treeline, dropping into Bigelow Col, shivering as I went. There is no shelter in the col, although there should be. It was late in the day, a gray sky going grayer, and with three more miles over the Horn before I could reach shelter. I couldn’t make it, not this time, not because of age but because of the ferocity of the storm. There is a caretaker hut in the col, but it was locked, the promise of shelter frustratingly close and yet inaccessible.
I uttered a few curses, slammed the lock, then cleared my head and made a plan.
The hut’s front porch was about eighteen inches wide, no roof over it but at least it offered a platform above the wet, rocky ground. I found an old door leaning against the back of the hut, carried it around and propped it in place as a wind break. Then I took out my emergency bivy, stuffed my sleeping bag into it, then slid in myself, still wet but at least warm. And that’s how I spent an interminable night.
It was not freezing the next morning, but close. Everything was wet. I scooped some water from a stream, downed an energy bar, slung my wet-heavy pack, then began my climb of the Horn. The rain had stopped, but the wind was cutting.
It took two hours to go three miles. I had made the right decision: I would never have made it last night. At Horns Pond, I went into a shelter just to get out of the wind, got my stove going and heated some rammen. The chemical broth from the flavor packet, something I would never eat off the trail, was extraordinarily cathartic. The ridge runner, Master Chipper, appeared from the gloom and came in to talk with me. He is a young man with his own pack of adventures, so we shared some warming stories while my core temperature rose.
Once my shivering stopped, I set out again for the final five miles down to the highway leading to the town of Stratton, where I had spent my 43rd birthday. It warmed as I descended—the sun even popped out a time or two. At the highway, I was picked up almost at once by a woman in a Mercedes SUV, who sped me to the Stratton Motel, still standing and with the three bears as yet gripping their trekking poles. Within a half hour of that, I had showered and was eating an enormous pizza at the Plaza Pub across the street, sipping a locally brewed beer and thinking that the last 24 hours hadn’t really been that bad.
Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - Caratunk, Maine
I made it through the Hundred-Mile Wildernes a day faster than my time in 2008, despite my relative youth of near-50 back then. My next section, Monson to Caratunk, which would take in both Moxie Bald Mountain and Pleasant Mountain, took me three days in 2008. I wondered if I could do it now in two. I have no idea why I'm setting these competitions with my previous hike, but I've got to cut it out or else I'm going to damage myself.
I made the hike in two days, with pulls of 17.9 and 18.8 miles.
The first day started at 9:00 a.m. and went fast through that gentle up-grade toward Moxie Bald Mountain. I forded both branches of the Piscataqua River without incident, kept the blackflies off this time with a new head net, found plenty of springs with beautiful, clean and cold water, arriving at Moxie Bald shelter late in the day but not feeling too bad. I slept well, just the rattle mice getting into my stuff, along with two amorous squirrels that seemed to go at it all night. No moose, no bear, no other bother.
I awoke at sunrise for day two feeling well. It was cool but not cold, warm enough that the mosquitoes were already at work. I was on the way by 6:00 a.m., quick-timing the half mile toward my first climb of the day, Moxie Bald Mountain. This climb went reasonably fast despite its steepness and rock jumbles, and I reached that bald granite summit while the sun was still low and the wind was sharp and brisk. Gosh, what an all-encompassing view, and not a bug aloft in those crisp gusts.
Gong down was a trial for my knees. The heat came up, and with it the bugs. My pace began to slow. To reach Pleasant Mountian, you have to climb over a series of ridges that roll like granite waves between the peaks, up, up, up--gain the bare granite tops--down, down, down through tangled roots and boggy lows. A couple of smarmy blackflies crawled up my sleeve and bit my arm. The bastards. I'm scratching as I write this.
4.2 miles is nothing, I kept telling myself while summiting something once more, something that wasn't Pleasant Mountain. A final steep grade, all in the trees, a drainage really, clotted with rounded rocks of various sizes, all washed clean by gushing rain water, poor footing (especially with a newly sparained ankle), slow going.
When did I reach the peak? I was too tired to make note, 3:00 p.m. I think. There's a shelter not too far, but Caratunk only six miles farther. I didn't do it last time but I could this time, I was sure.
The trail keeps you up high for most of it. The leaves were crackling dry. No water. I ran out. Foolish mistake. I could have carried more, but I was greedy to keep my pack weight down. I slogged on over ridge after ridge, technically heading down but it never felt that way. My throat was so dry that my voice was hoarse. My kidneys ached. I would come across a muddy seep and bend to dig a hole, hoping it would fill. No luck.
I pushed on, stumbling sometimes, and at last dropped into a hollow with a shallow stream. It was as if I were back in the Mojave that time, doing the PCT and having run out of water yesterday. I dropped my pack, dropped onto painful knees, thrust my water filter directly into the stream like a squat straw, and sucked in blessedly cool mouthfulls of water. Afterward I filled both containers, heavy but I wasn't going to run out of water again.
Those last couple of miles are always the longest. Caratunk wasn't far, I could damn hear it, but it was still going to take a while to get there. Someone--for spite, perhaps--threw a P.U.D. (pointless up and down) in the way just a mile or so from town, a tough upward slog that I made one shuffling foot at a time. When I stumbled out onto the highway at last, my feet feeling like aching bricks on that pavement, Caratunk was quiet. No one out, no cars--the hostel, it seems, was not open. With no shelters nearby, my only choice was to walk back into the woods and roll up on the ground, bugs gathering like a cloud of biting chaos. I would have groaned if I'd had the energy.
Just then a car stops across the way.
"Are you all right?" asks a woman.
"Uhgrawnuh," answer I hoarsly.
"Hop in, then. I'll take you to Sterling Inn."
Sterling Inn is a few miles down the road and it is heaven. I would never have made it on foot, and again in that wierd juxtaposition, within an hour I am showered, drinking a local porter, eating a big burger along with mac and cheese, and I'm thinking, "18.8 miles since this morning, a day faster than last time, and I'm feeling pretty well."
Saturday, May 26, 2018 - Mt. Katahdin, Maine
It is something I have never actually seen during my other hikes since the mountain has previously been enshrouded in mist and fog and spatters of cold rain. It was at those times hand-over-hand, white blazes appearing at the last instant through the gloom, reach for a handhold, push up, squeeze between some rocks, wedge a foot into a crack, swing a leg, find another handhold and pull. I had no sense of anything, no perspective, no scale, only that next handhold, my feet hidden below me in the mist. It took hours, perhaps more, any sense of distance irrelevant, time folded into another dimension where it didn't apply. Getting there was a practical defeat, a weathered sign diffuse in wisps of fog, no photos, no view, a long, slippery journey down, all of this a purposeless expenditure of energy yet necessary in order to begin a proper hike.
Not this time.
The day was gray but not gauzy. The woods were wet, the rocks slick, but I caught an occasional view between trees toward other mountains, views of some detail so I had hope. I met a couple from New Brunswick along the way, early thirties, perhaps a little more or a little less, he about to embark on his first thru-hike, she accompaning him for the climb up Katahdin to be followed by a day into the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. Then, she said, she had to get back to work while her husband would continue on, come what may.
They were nice people. I liked them. He was a bit heavy, though. No worries, he would lose that soon enough, but his backpack weighed 38 pounds and of this he was proud, having pared to such a light weight. I winced but said nothing. The worst thing you can do on the Appalachian Trail (from a long list of worst things) is tell someone else their business, offer unsolicited advice. We all find our own ways by and by.
There was a rock he couldn't get over, too slick, too high. It was his short legs, he explained. I gave him a pull up--his wife wasn't strong enough--promised to see them on top, then took off up the trail. I never saw them again. Hikers told me that the couple had turned back, that the couple couldn't negotiate the rocks. Whether this meant that the man had given up his dream to thru-hike the trail or whether he was just skipping Katahdin for now I do not know. I want to think that they wen't down, through the campground and then into the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. I want to think... There are other climbs, though, many of them, many almost as difficult as Katahdin, and many too remote to call for help. If he went on, I hope he is well.
All alone now, I finally cleared the treeline, could look up to see what I had never been able to see before, and my gut twisted.
"Holy crap! I climbed that?"
Getting to the top of Katahdin is a borderline technical climb. Through the mist, I never realized that before. Good thing too, because the climb is so intimidating I might not have done it had I known.
I pushed on, wary. I cached my trekking poles to free my hands. I found alternate routes when I couldn't swing a leg up without pulling my groin, hopped with a tingling belly onto knife-edged rocks that would have seen me plummet if I had missed. The route to the top is 5.2 miles. The first mile is easy and fast, the second is annoying but fast enough, the third breaks through the treeline, and the rest are hell. It took 4 1/2 hours to get to the top, most in those last couple of miles, but finally I had done it! I had the view, the photographs--I could see what I had acomplished.
Going down is usually harder, but not this time. I hopped from rock to rock, knees twinging, found my trekking poles, then engaged that rooty, rocky trail, this time with gravity on my side. I made great time, practically flying down, evaporating miles, until I rolled my right ankle and went down hard. I had been afraid of this. I rolled my right ankle in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in 2008, hurt it so bad that it swole enough to engulf the ankle joint. Stuck in the Wilderness, I had no choice but to go on and hope for the best. I made it out and the ankle healed, although I swear it was still purple and bruised when I hiked into Connecticut. This time it wasn't as bad, just enough to give me a slowing and painful limp.
I was out by 4:00 p.m., and in another of those wierd trail juxtapositions, within the hour I was eating pizza and drinking Bangor Brown and feeling that I must have made the climb days ago.
Thursday, May 24, 2018 - Monson, Maine
A week that could as well have been a month, that's the way it feels now that I have slipped into "trail time." I have written about this perceptual peculiarity before, the strange elongation of time that occurs once I have been on the trail long enough for it to displace any connection to my more ordered life back home.
Seven days in Maine's Hundred-Mile Wilderness was more than enough to lull me into this state, but first I had to get there. The journey followed the same stages as each of my previous hikes: the flight to Boston Logan; the Concord Bus within the hour to Bangor, Maine; the Cyr Bus within the hour to Medway, Maine, arriving as the sun is setting; the stay at the Medway Gateway inn; and then the shuttle to Baxter State Park to begin the hike at Mt. Katahdin--except that this time, due to heavy snows last winter, not just the trails but even the roads into the park were still closed. All of this occurred nine days ago but could have been a month or more from my perspective. At least that's the way it feels.
Since I couldn't get into the park to at least start my hike from the Katahdin Stream campground, I started from Abol Bridge instead, bare feet from where the infamous warning sign is posted: THIS IS THE LONGEST WILDERNESS SECTION OF THE ENTIRE A.T. AND ITS DIFFICULTY SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED.
Setting out at about 10:00 a.m., under a clear, cool sky, I made a fast, confident pace on a trail that I have hiked twice before, making the 15 miles to Rainbow Stream shelter while the sun was still high enough to break through the canopy. With relief, I fished that heavy copy of my novel, The Appalachian, out of my backpack, signed it with a note to please leave it at the shelter (where Carlton Jeffries will narrate his story), then spent a peaceful, bug-free evening.
The next morning, I lit out early under similar weather conditions for Potawadjo shelter, 18 miles that I barely noticed, met some Maine Appalachian Trail Club guys along the way who gave me some extra fuel (since I realized that I hadn't brought enough to make it through the Wilderness), and made Potawadjo shelter early enough for an almost identical evening.
From then on, things became a bit rougher.
From Potawadjo, I headed for Cooper Brook shelter, just eleven miles on, but here the trail became more rugged. Severe winter storm had downed some really large trees, which crossed the trail like giant matchsticks. Some I could hop over; some I could hike around; but in one area they lay so thick atop one another that I had no choice but to weave and wind through them, tossing my backpack and poles ahead, climbing through, retrieving them and then tossing them again. It took about three hours to get through this. When I made Cooper Brook, it was late and I was exhausted, scratched and contused. This was my first tough day.
After Cooper Brook, my next shelter was Logan Brook on the north side of White Cap Mountain, another eleven miles of blowdowns and flooded trail. The going was slow, similar to the previous day, and I slid into my sleeping bag just as exhausted.
Day five meant that it was time to summit White Cap Mountain which, because there had been so many winter storms, was bound to be deeper in snow than my previous hikes--and this proved to be the case. For a mere seven miles, I spent and entire, exhaustive day post-holing upward through snow to my knees, often having to skirt or climb over blowdowns. The weather turned at the summit, going from sunny and warm to cloudy and cold in minutes--and then it began to rain.
The descent to Newhall shelter was no better, but at least gravity was now on my side. I did reach the shelter early in the day, wanted to go on after only seven miles, but I was too tired, the weather was too poor, and I was going hypothermic at any rate. So I made hot food and then got into my bag to warm up and wait it out. The sun broke later in the afternoon, and with it came two northbound section hikers, young men just graduated from college and doing their last outing together before embarking on their careers. They gave me some food since I was running low, and we spent an enjoyable evening. By the next morning it was time for things to really get hard.
I knew I wanted out of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in seven days, not only because I was running low on food, but because I wanted to beat my time in 2008. To do this, though, I was going to have to pull a seventeen-mile hike to Cloud Pond shelter and then a nineteen-mile hike into Monson, and this over Chairback Mountain and many other steep summits, all along grades that are so steep that you often have to pull yourself up the trail by grasping roots and the trunks of trees, and then lowering yourself the same way. There were rock scrambles to negotiate, beaver ponds that had engulfed the trail, and clouds of frenzied blackflies that I could wipe from my face like blowing sand. It was hellish.
I reached Cloud Pond shelter as the sun was setting, so tired that I broke my own rule and did not wash up before getting into my sleeping bag. I awoke at sunrise, about 4:30 a.m., feeling sticky, emaciated, and weak. I was on the trail by 6:00 a.m., desperate to evaporate those last nineteen miles, the feel of a hot shower on my skin and the taste of cold beer in my mouth. I have hiked over forty miles in one pull before. Surely I could conquer a mere nineteen miles...
The forest was Faustian, full of bogs and bugs and climbs and slips and falls and suffocating blackflies. By noon I had only made ten miles, so dubious about my prospects that considered rolling up in my rain coat alongside the trail, anything to get the blackflies out of my face.
I had no more food, no snacks, no calories to add. I had already lost ten pounds. Even my reserves were limited.
Three miles from the highway crossing near Monson, about 5:30 p.m., I was spent. There is a shelter at this point, Leeman. I had never stayed in that shelter, but I was so exhausted, so bedraggled, that I gave up my goals of showers and beer and crawled inside to wait out the night and hopefully recover enough strength to get out the next day.
It was the blackflies that convinced me otherwise. They followed me into the shleter, of course, were as bad there as on the trail. In a huff of disgust I shouldered my pack and set out again, now about 6:00 p.m., trudged with just enough energy to put one foot in front of the other, and in two more hours, crossed those remaining three miles.
A lucky hitch on the highway got me into Monson after dark. Shaw's Hostel wasn't open yet, so I went to Lakeshore House Pub and Lodging nearby, which was also closed. I pounded on the door and windows in desperation. Fortunately someone heard me, and within minutes I was being hugged by Rebekah, the owner, who said I was her first thru-hiker of the season. Minutes after that I was drinking a cold beer while showering (deeply satisfying, by the way), and minutes after that I was eating the biggest, best plank of roast beef that I have ever encountered.
In my bunk that night, comfortable, full, and clean, I tried to tie myself back into that morning at Cloud Pond, a memory that seemed too far away to matter. That's the way it is on the trail: What's behind is behind, there is only forward.
Sunday, April 22, 2018 – Smith County, Tennessee
When I promised myself in 2008 that I would return for another Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2018...well, I never realized how quickly a decade could pass. And anyway, 2018 sounded like science fiction, not reality. Surely that date would never come, but then if it did appear one New Year’s morning, maybe a bus would have taken me out by then, or a heart attack, or a round from an assault rifle. Family and friends well acquainted with the evening news (or perhaps a stifling succession of news feeds) fret about my welfare on a hike like this. I don’t. And besides, if something were to happen to me I would rather face it on the Appalachian Trail than elsewhere in the banal times we now inhabit.
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001, was given the trail name “Solo” by the rangers at Baxter State Park in the state of Maine, then proceeded over the next four months and some to discover every frailty inherent in my body and spirit. That hike was a soul-searching mess. When it was over, I was dispirited, fifty pounds lighter, and couldn’t walk without a wobble. Within days though, with some food and a little rest, I began to berate myself for leaving the trail early. My mind was in a new place, no longer right between my shoulders but just a little to the left, where I was not always able to keep an eye on my mouth. This inability to self-censor caused me some personal and professional headaches, but I found that I didn’t care. Real life was on a trail in the mountains; everything else was just distraction.
But my failure to complete the Appalachian Trail in one thru-hike ate at me in every waking moment. It never left me. There was not a day that I didn’t recall some portion of that experience; not a day that I didn’t want to go back. I decided to return 2008, to turn 50 on the trail, and was so startled by my physical and mental transformation that I didn’t want the hike to end even as I raced toward that end with 35-mile-plus days, light on my feet and feeling 20 years younger. It was amazing.
I rocked that trail in 2008, finished on the very day I left it in 2001, September 27. It would be serendipitous if that happened again, but it wasn’t a goal in 2008 or a goal now. It would be cool, though, no doubt about it.
Hiking southbound once more, I expect to turn 60 somewhere in lower Maine. Ten years on, but I feel pretty well. I’m anxious only because of my age, but if this hike is anything like my 2008 hike, all of that anxiety will be dispelled by the time I clear the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. Of real concern this time is the wave after wave of bad weather New England encountered through the winter. It might be difficult to climb Katahdin, and White Cap might be impassable. So, starting with a base weight of twelve pounds, I’m going to add some extra cold-weather gear and perhaps avoid that severe bout of hypothermia I endured near Caratunk in 2008.
Time draws near; keep your eyes here. I’ll post a few things on Facebook, but the real action will be on this page.
“Solo” headin’ south.
Always forward, never backward; pass every white blaze.